Mailbag: Unbalanced Classes, Hockey vs Basketball, Further Hockey Expansion, Defensive Coach Turnover
If you're doing a mailbag any time soon, a potential question: does all the defensive coaching turnover dampen your expectations for the defense? Having three new coaches, including a new DC, has to impose some kind of transition cost, right? It would be frustrating to have what might be an excellent defense undermined by coaching changes.
On the whole, no. For one, while Chris Partridge is a new coach he's replacing John Baxter, who did not work with last year's D. There are only two guys being replaced. Losing Greg Jackson is a blow, as by all reports the players loved him. The secondary's performance last year was a major step forward from everybody—even Peppers, who we had not really seen before, developed over the course of the season. It's likely that Jackson is very good at his job, and you always hate to lose a guy like that after just one year.
I have zero concerns about replacing DJ Durkin with Don Brown. Durkin's defense last year was very good until it collapsed late, and while part of that was on Glasgow's injury it was very frustrating watching Michigan play a spread option team with a safety lined up 18 yards off the LOS. You can't do that when the opposition has an 11-on-11 run game, and Michigan found that out the hard way. Since that was a thing that even a blogger was warning about…
So it's up to Michigan: ride with what got you here and try to hold up, or go to more of a zone based look in an attempt to replicate what just happened [against MSU]. The bet here is that Michigan enters with the latter in their pocket but tries to go toe to toe, combating zone with the addition of a safety to the end of the LOS and the corresponding blitz.
…and Michigan emphatically had nothing in their back pocket in the second half, I'm happy to see Durkin at Maryland. He could be a great coach, sure. He could be a guy who hung on to Will Muschamp's coattails and got exposed by Urban Meyer.
Meanwhile Brown has an excellent track record:
Bolded years are Don Brown; others are there for comparison. YPP is raw yards per play. FEI and S&P+ are advanced metrics that attempt to take schedule strength and various other factors into account.
It is possible that there's a settling-in period where Brown's D isn't as effective. The data don't show anything conclusive about that, with Maryland and UConn both getting significantly better in advanced metrics in year one despite a drop in yards per play. Meanwhile last year Michigan's defense was very good despite being in its first year of a new system.
Michigan can't get significantly better in advanced metrics and should expect a backslide just from regression to the mean, so I won't be judging Brown on how he does relative to last year's D… except against Ohio State. The absolute best news of the offseason to me is that Don Brown spent his time at Michigan's coaching clinic ranting about run defense…
Coach Brown believes that it all starts with run defense, “Check our record, 4 out of the last 5 years, nobody runs the ball. I don’t give a crap what I have to do, we’re going to stop the run.” Don Brown’s defenses finished #2 in 2011 (UCONN), #3 in 2012 (UCONN), #2 in 2014 (Boston College) and #1 in 2015 (Boston College) in run defense.
…and detailing the varied and intricate responses he's developed to zone read including inverted veer or "power read," as coaches seem to be calling it.
The result of last year's Game (and the one before that, and the one before that, and the one before that) cried out for a defensive coordinator who is awesome at stopping a power spread attack. Don Brown looks like the ideal candidate. I was getting pretty nervous for a couple weeks there when Rivals kept bringing up NFL guys—exactly the wrong kind of candidate for the biggest game on the schedule—and couldn't be happier with the way things worked out.
I'll be keeping a wary eye on the developments in the secondary but at least Brian Smith is a DB by trade and a DB coach until he was shoehorned in at linebacker a year ago; this isn't going back to Roy Manning, lifetime LB, as a CB coach. As far as the DC trade goes, I give it an A++++++.
[After THE JUMP: Jim Delany and the satellite camps, college hockey realignment stuff, hockey and basketball expectations.]
Long-time reader, second time emailer. I sent you a fake inspirational poster featuring Tate Forcier when those were still things. You used it. Good times.
I have the following mailbag questions:
1. With the departure of Durkin, Baxter, Jackson, et. al, do you see the revolving door continuing for assistant coaches? I don't have a problem with it because HARBAUGH and it means they are poach worthy. What about Drevno? He seems unlikely to leave anytime soon. I guess my question is: how much of the offense is Harbaugh, and how much is Drevno/Fisch? Would there be a big change if one of the latter left? Butt's comments about not having to learn a new offense this year were nice to hear just for continuity's sake.
This offseason's turnover was a bit extreme. Maryland hiring Durkin after one year as a defensive coordinator actually in charge of his defense—at Florida he was under Will Muschamp—was unexpected. I figured we'd get a 3-5 year run from him before he was established enough to make the jump. Losing Baxter and Jackson is actually more of a worry for me. Baxter went back to California, which is understandable if you're sawft because you've spent your time in that climate. Jackson may have decided he's more of an NFL guy.
Harbaugh seemed to make a conscious decision to reduce staff turnover with his picks for replacements. College DC lifer Don Brown is past the point where he'd be a head coach candidate; Chris Partridge and Brian Smith are young guys moving up who will probably stick around a while before any potential bump to quasi-co-psuedo associate head coach and run defense coordinator. Michigan's defensive assistants should be set for a few years, with a Mattison retirement the next likely swap.
On the other side of the ball it's murkier. It's Harbaugh's offense, of that there is no doubt. Coordinators on the same side of the ball as a heavily involved guru head coach often take a significant amount of seasoning before they are targeted for a move up the ladder. (See: Pat Narduzzi.) Drevno had not been a full OC prior to the Michigan move and has been with Harbaugh for a long time; he doesn't seem like a threat to depart for a few years yet, and when and if he does it'll be because Michigan's offense is shredding opponents.
Meanwhile Fisch is set to negotiate an extension that should bump his salary up significantly after a buyout year when Michigan was more or less paying the Jaguars. He seemed to get on with the staff and clearly had OC-type input in the passing game…
"good shit, Jedd" pic.twitter.com/6LKlSnY7Qp
— Ace Anbender (@AceAnbender) October 6, 2015
…so I wouldn't expect him to leave for anything short of a full OC spot. That may very well happen—before he was cursed to work in the mines of Jacksonville he had a pretty good run at Miami—but I think he'll be around for a while yet.
The guy to watch for a departure is Tyrone Wheatley, who has ambitions to be a head coach. He has a powerful motivation to stick around for four more years; after that I would not be surprised to see him look for an OC spot no matter where it is.
2. What about Chesson for the #1 jersey? Has that been officially retired? If so, I don't remember hearing much about it. I can't remember a better candidate in recent years than him.
#1 is not retired and shouldn't be. Devin Funchess just wore it, remember? The fact that this guy didn't remember that and I wrote most of this response before remembering that an NFL player wore #1 two years ago is… Brady Hoke, man.
Anyway: no retiring more numbers please. #21 getting retired is kind of a bummer, man, and I can't imagine #1 or #2 goes by the wayside for practical (running out of numbers) and recruiting (here's Charles Woodson's number) reasons. But I don't expect Chesson to take it. He is in a pretty famous WR number (86) already and he doesn't seem like the type of guy to care much either way.
Beilein status, part 1
Hey Brian. I see you trying to walk the line of criticizing U-M basketball while not calling for Beilein's head. Here's the issue to me...
it's easy to compare Beilein to what came before and say look at his improvement. But the "fire Beilein" says "Well, that's not good enough." The better comparison isn't to what came before but to what would come after. What are the odds of replacing Beilein with someone who runs a clean program, fits culturally with the university, and achieves more success on the court? I put it at about 10%. That's not a chance worth taking for someone who may be marginally better. But the only thing that would satisfy these guys is if we were dominating the Big Ten. So then you need to consider the odds of getting the coach who runs a clean program, fits in culturally and consistently out-performs Izzo, Crean, et al. I put those odds under 1%.
So it's a shame that Beilein isn't a slightly better coach than he is, but Michigan's biggest obstacle is that our rivals' programs are just consistently too good.
I mean, yeah. I think we're all pretty disappointed where the program is right now but that's largely an artifact of Beilein's insane level of success over the three years from 2012-14, which went
- Big Ten Title
- National Championship Game
- Outright Big Ten Title & Elite Eight
Frankly I didn't expect that level of performance from Beilein when he was hired. I just wanted to make the tournament most of the time and Pittsnogle some higher seeds. Take that expectation and remove the team's star for consecutive years and this is what you get.
That said, the trend here, especially on defense, is alarming. It's not really about the level of the program, it's about the direction of the arrow. If Beilein's projected performance going forward is the average of his Michigan career minus his first year (which I think we can issue a mulligan for given the state of the roster) then yes, it will be very difficult for Michigan to match or exceed that. If it's the last two years, even considering Levert's injury, then the pool of candidates who can expect to match or do better expands considerably.
I don't think that's clear yet. I do think we're going to see an offseason shakeup and hopefully a defensive specialist brought in. I am still resigned to the fact that Beilein's peak is likely to have already passed and that we'll probably be gunning for a Sweet 16 or two before he retires, not a title.
[After THE JUMP: more Beilein feelingsball, PWO pickin', can the Big Ten replicate the Harbaugh model?]
Offense impressions, year one
I attended the DC event you did over the summer where you talked about what to expect from a Harbaugh offense. Now that there is a season's worth of data, do you have any plans to revisit and do a compare and contrast on that? I'm curious what new wrinkles can be attributed to Fisch, opponent specific stuff, or just flat out integrating plays he likes, as a way of understanding how he evolves his approach.
That's a conversation for next year. It will be interesting to see how Michigan's philosophy changes going forward; right now I the only things I have to compare it to are NFL offenses in a vastly different competitive environment and a five-year-old Stanford team with a largely different braintrust.
Meanwhile it'll probably take another year before the Death Star is even vaguely operational. You could see the outlines of the things Harbaugh wants to do, but it's always much easier to see what the shape of a thing is when it works as intended. Michigan's ground game didn't do that enough to get a feel for the shape of he whole thing.
One thing that did stand out was the week-to-week diversity of formations and plays. Michigan had a T-formation package last seen in college football decades ago; they had a week where they ran a handful of zone read; they fiddled with some diamond formations. While the wrinkles didn't always add up to much in year one, they do speak to Harbaugh's philosophy: he wants to constantly show you things that make you uncomfortable and get you to bust a run fit.
It's mostly the same for the offensive line. They get a call and they execute the call. Those calls are almost always standard power, inside zone, or outside zone. The only things that Michigan did that they didn't do much under previous staffs were quick trap pulls.
Harbaugh puts a bunch of window dressing around it and uses his blocky/catchy types to spring the surprises. Going forward I am guessing you are going to see a high priority put on RB/TE/FB types who are highly intelligent, because the bulk of the week-to-week changes are on them. I think that's a major reason Michigan's PWO class is heavy on high-academic blocky/catchy types—there might be an Owen Marecic lurking in there.
[After THE JUMP: extensive takes on the envelope pushing and overall grades for Hoke]
Two quick mailbag questions for you during this recruiting season.
1 - How would you describe Harbaugh's recruiting philosophy?
I think Hoke's was pretty easy to understand. If you got an offer from Hoke, it was a commit-able offer. If you wanted to take visits after accepting an offer, then you were no longer considered committed and they would consider you just a recruit competing for a spot in the class.
Rodriguez was somewhat similar to Harbaugh i think, but there are some subtle differences. Rodriguez would fire off a ton of offers and sort out how "official" they were as they learned more about grades, etc. I think he had less consideration for class distribution by position and that may have gotten him in trouble, but he also chased some of the top players regardless of fit.
Harbaugh seems to be something along the lines of this:
-- An offer is conditional upon certain requirements (curious your opinion on those)
-- If you commit, that doesn't mean that either you or Michigan is married to another. Visits are still allowed and Michigan may still explore options for your spot.
-- Until you sign the LOI or enroll, consider things a soft commitment.
Harbaugh sends out "offers." Hoke did not do that. If you had an offer from Michigan under Hoke you could commit to it. Harbaugh does the thing most people do these days and fires out offers in name only. To date he's been less than circumspect when it comes to allowing kids to commit to those offers (though sometimes that's not his call; some kids announce commitments to uncommitable offers).
A commitment is still mostly a commitment. Of the guys who left Michigan's class only two, Swenson and Weaver, were instances where Michigan flat out didn't want a guy because of their perception of his talent level. It's been more or less directly stated by guys like Steve Wiltfong that other players who decommitted had academic benchmarks they didn't reach or were 100% the player's choice. And Swenson was a unique situation since he was a highly-rated commit who was offered before his sophomore year by Brady Hoke. Michigan evidently made it clear they wanted to see him in action to confirm but didn't make it CLEAR, if you know what I mean. That's an error Harbaugh admitted to and hopefully won't be as much of a thing going forward.
I expect that Michigan will continue to have a few speculative commits who may or may not end up in the class for reasons academic and otherwise. Their offers will continue to keep pace with the state of the art in mangling the English langauge for marketing purposes. Some guys will take those offers. Michigan will make things clear to them, and some of them will end up in the class while others either use their status as a springboard, as Weaver did, or end up where they were going to end up anyway.
[After the JUMP: a graph, 2017 DL worries, 2016 LB worries, and HOW INSANE WAS THIS COACHING HIRE]
you, go away
Given the general distaste we Michigan fans have had with the way in which SEC coaches like Les Miles and others oversign and then cut in order to make scholarship numbers work, how can we not be similarly enraged when it looks like we are now engaging in a similar practice? Is the answer HARBAUGH?
Michigan is not yet at the point where they have to tell a freshman who's been on campus for weeks to GTFO. Should they reach that point, or one anywhere near it, then I'll be grousing as well.
They aren't near it. To date they have lost some commits before Signing Day. If those are Michigan's choice that is a recruiting misdemeanor compared to the felony of getting a guy's LOI and putting yourself in a position where someone's gotta go, deserved or not. And in some cases they are not Michigan's choice—reports after Vic Viramontes decommitted were that Michigan was blindsided and disappointed. (The MGoSlack chat was certainly mournful.)
I do think Michigan put themselves in a bad spot by offering a few guys before it was clear whether they had the academics and/or talent to play at Michigan. In the former case, those guys should know the score without anyone having to walk their way through it—if you're not taking officials you have to know you're a long way away.
In the latter case, once that disappointing senior film comes in you can either try to make it work even if you don't believe the player is Michigan-caliber anymore or you can consciously uncouple. I can see how moving on before Signing Day instead of two years into a career nowhere near the field could be better for everyone. Michigan told Matt Falcon they didn't think he could play but had a medical scholarship. That sucked for Falcon but better to find out before you've spent eligibility. The error has been made either way.
Meanwhile, Michigan has limited control of the narrative that gets put out there because they cannot say anything about ongoing recruitments. Reports that Michigan isn't contacting certain players much are probably frustrating to the staff because the reason for that is that they've already told people the deal, as they did with Falcon, but "Michigan commit" looks good on a resume when you're looking for another spot to land. Recruiting sites waited months for Dele Harding to say something about his recruitment and finally just took him off commit lists. That doesn't mean Harding didn't know his status. If you read between the lines you know who isn't likely to be in the class. If you know, they know.
Meanwhile I know that they have told certain players not to commit whereupon those players commit anyway; Michigan shrugs its shoulders at crootin' and keeps going. Carr used to go out of his way to make things clear when such things happened to him (LB [something] Justice and some OL out of Tennessee who I can't remember spring to mind); Harbaugh seems to (accurately) regard the whole edifice as a farce and plays his part with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.
We'll see what happens on and after Signing Day. I don't think we'll see any more untoward than playing time transfers and guys not being offered fifth years.
[After the JUMP: where to put guys, where to spend scholarships, and the best hockey forwards of the past 15 years.]
Let's add another position to Peppers's bio?
Is it absurd to think Jabrill could fill in at LB next year? He's listed about 30 pounds lighter than Bolden, yes, but he's faster, tackles better, and recognizes plays faster. Is the idea just a total non-starter because of the snaps he's expected to take on offense?
Just curious as to your thoughts.
In a sense he already is filling in at linebacker. Michigan ran more nickel snaps last year than they ever had before largely because Peppers gave them that luxury. Part of his triple threat is defending the run. So: kind of.
But if you're asking about moving Peppers into the box as one of two inside linebackers, that is indeed absurd. Peppers is good at all things that physics allows him to be good at. This does not include getting off blocks from 300 pound offensive linemen. Then add the increased wear and tear because of those blocks—when he ends up in coverage he does not get hit unless MSU is running their Obvious Offensive Pass Interference play—and you're wearing Peppers down in a role he's a dubious fit for.
If Peppers has X snaps in him I'm sure we can agree that whatever is left over after his duties as a nickelback are complete should be dedicated to getting the ball in his hands.
Yes they have, no he's not.
Has anyone asked Harbaugh if Glasgow will return for the bowl game? Any other injured players that we'll get back?
Harbaugh all but ruled Glasgow out of the bowl game. He said Rudock had not thrown since the OSU game but should be no problem to return, and there isn't really anyone else that's hurt. Ojemudia, I guess, but we already know he's laid up for the season.
There was chatter that Bryan Mone might return. Harabaugh reinforced that with some comments in pre-OSU press conferences, but I've heard that was never anywhere near coming to fruition. And at this point is the redshirt worth burning for a slightly increased chance of beating Florida? No. It was dubious for OSU and not even plausible for a non-BCS bowl game. Brian Cole is also on track for a medical redshirt and playing safety in any case, where Michigan isn't pressed for depth.
Actually, the opposite effect.
With Bronco Mendenhall taking the Head coaching job at Virginia, does this mean Taysom Hill is a lock to come to Michigan next year?
I'd say that departure makes him less likely to end up at Michigan. Hill was transferring, that is a given. It might have been Michigan; it might not. But he was going somewhere (or retiring).
Now UVA might look like an enticing landing spot. Virginia has Matt Johns returning for his senior year, Johns threw 17 interceptions and rushed for 86 yards in 2014 and is far from a lock. Hill knows Harbaugh relatively well, but he really knows Mendenhall.
Where Hill ends up probably won't be known until after spring practice, when scholarships open up and coaches have a grip on what they've got at the QB spot. Michigan wasn't actually that interested in Jake Rudock until about halfway through spring, when their thinking suddenly changed. If Hill ends up at Michigan it is something of a referendum on John O'Korn. If Michigan passes it's also a referendum, a much better one for our purposes.
I always answer emails that accidentally call me "brain"
I think we can all agree that Durkin was in a tough spot heading into the OSU game. It's not too hard to imagine a world in which Michigan had Glasgow, Mone, and even a functioning Ondre Pipkins at NT on Saturday. Instead, Durkin had Hurst, Charlton, Wormley, Henry, Strobel, Pallante, and maybe an injured Godin to fill out the entire line.
An mgoposter made the compelling argument that playing Hurst, Charlton, Wormley, and Henry for nearly all of the game - with a few reps possibly going to Strobel, Pallante, and the injured Godin - was untenable. The main four were inevitably going to be worn down, the argument goes, or Strobel, Pallante, and Godin were going play significant snaps but be a very poor match for OSU's line. The 3-3-5 put the LBs into positions they weren't accustomed to, but you can at least argue that was better than having linemen who were too tired to be effective.
In light of the fact that the 3-3-5 made some sense (or maybe you disagree), can we say that the failure to use run blitzes and the failure to incorporate the safeties more into stopping the run were the staff's biggest failings against OSU? Relying on Ross, Morgan, and Bolden to do things they aren't comfortable with rather than relying on exhausted or third-string linemen is one thing, but failing to load the box (with whatever combination of players) is another. The latter seems far more questionable given that OSU was a far better running team this season than they were a passing team.
While I agree that Michigan was in a tough spot with depth no matter what they did, my complaint about the 3-3-5 is only about 30% "it didn't work" and 70% "it was a very bad attempt to respond."
If you notice something about the PSU, MSU, and OSU defenses it's that they're all basically the same: pattern-matching cover 4, mostly, with two high safeties. PSU plays them actually high; MSU plays them at eight yards. This allows you to apply a relevant defender to the playside. Michigan kept playing a very deep high safety through the entire game.
To some extent that's fine in the first half. You got a couple stops, you're going up against an OSU offense that has been clunky much of the year, you are caught off guard by some new (old) things that they are doing. I'm not ticked off about the early pooch punt because I thought the same thing everyone else did: that Michigan and OSU were about to get locked into a defensive struggle.
Once OSU crunches you in the face on the touchdown drive that made it 14-3 late you need to have something in your back pocket to transition to once it becomes obvious that your base package cannot hold up. Durkin simply did not. If the 3-3-5 was his response it was a total failure. It was so bad they couldn't run it.
There is a reason quarters is a very popular defense around the country right now, and it is Ohio State's offense. Leaving one high against it is asking for trouble, and trouble was received. If you want to save DL snaps you can do that by getting super-aggressive.
I'm okay losing this game because Barrett hits a bunch of passes like he did against Clark and Lewis. That's something I'm willing to let OSU try in lieu of grinding Michigan for 350 rushing yards. To watch Durkin sit on the sideline with his 20-yard-deep safety as Michigan got ground up for the second time in three games was a major confidence shaker. That he left is… fine by me.
This kind of thing is why I don't want an NFL DC coming in here, by the way. I want a guy who came up from the bottom and has had to fight spread offenses for decades. Tossing some dude out there who hasn't had to scheme against a QB run since 1985 gives me the heebie-jeebies.
What about next year?
My dad and I traditionally watch every game together with my brother and uncle joining us some/most of the time. The defensive game plan on Saturday bugs me more and more with each passing day. Going back to Harbaugh's battles with Oregon at Stanford, is there anything there that might indicate how The Game will go in the future? My dad has insisted on a talent gap, but I'm certain that the combination of injuries and trying to implement a terrible/unfamiliar scheme had to do with UM's down fall on Saturday. With Durkin out the door, do you see Michigan's seemingly increased depth at line next year giving them an advantage? And how long do we have to wait before we can run the ball the way Harbaugh wants?
Thanks ahead of time, love the blog and the work you guys put into it,
Jason from GR
Harbaugh never did get a grip on Oregon's offense while he was at Stanford. In his four years, the Ducks put up 55, 35, 42, and 52. Harbaugh did win the third game of that series, but it wasn't good. It really couldn't have been good until year four, when the Stanford defense caught up to the Luck offense. But even then that Vic Fangio-led D got bombed by the Ducks.
Many teams got bombed by the Ducks that year, except for one: Auburn. Because Auburn lives and dies by the same stuff Oregon does and they cancelled each other out. I say this all the time, but the corollary to the "the spread makes your defense soft" stuff often promulgated by people who can't divide very well is "the spread makes your defense resilient to the spread."
This is obviously not a hard and fast rule, or even a rule at all—see every Big 12 game since 2002. But I do wonder about how prepared Michigan was to face running QBs this year.
Anyway: there is an obvious talent gap that OSU did its best to hide for the duration of the year during their post-Herman malaise. Check the first round of the upcoming NFL draft for ample evidence thereof.
Michigan should be a lot closer to parity next year, as OSU loses big chunks of their team and Michigan brings just about everyone back. I'm not sure the run game will explode, but four returning starters in the same system should equate to progress, especially if they get improved production from the running back spot. Michigan should feel like an elite team if they get good QB play. And given Harbaugh's track record…